Ambleteuse

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf and Dominic Goode, all rights reserved.

Ambleteuse is a small coastal town between Boulogne and Calais. The town looks out on the sea between France and England and on a clear day the English coast is visible. The area is easily accessible by the river and has fertile ground with lots of fresh drinking water. For these reasons it has been of strategic interest for centuries. It is said that Caesar embarked part of his army here when the Romans invaded Britain.

In 1544 the English king Henry VIII'attacked France from his base at Calais. The English army captured Boulogne, although the French almost succeeded in retaking it later in the year. Shaken by this near-defeat, the English made efforts to protect their new territory.

As well as improving the fortifications of Boulogne itself, it was decided to build fortifications between Boulogne and Calais, to secure the land route between the two English bases. To this end John Rogers'and Sir Richard Lee'surveyed Ambleteuse in early 1546.

Following this survey, Rogers produced a design for a triangular fort backing onto the river, with three large arrow-headed bastions'and a small bastion'facing the river. However, the king did not approve of this plan and suggested a pentagonal design instead.

In accordance with the king's wishes, Rogers drafted a new plan for a pentagonal fortress surrounding the town, which the English called Newhaven. In an attempt to improve the harbour, there was a dam across the river (which would have been used to hold back water at high tide and release it at low tide, to prevent the harbour from emptying). The dam was never built, but it is likely that some work was done to improve the harbour.

In addition to the main fortress, which was revetted in brick, there was a small earthwork fort to the east (which the French called the Fort de Slack), guarding the approach to the town. At the river mouth, there was a substantial stone battery or tower.

In 1549 the French king Henri II arrived with an army and laid siege to Ambleteuse and captured it after only 3 days. However, the French were impressed with the fortifications, which had been completed remarkably quickly. The early capitulation seems to have been caused by the poor morale of the garrison rather than a deficiency in the fortifications.

In 1554 the French abandoned the town, demolishing the fortifications. Ambleteuse was forgotten and the harbour became silted up. In the 1680s Louis XIV'considered making Ambleteuse into an important fortified naval base.

A plan was drawn up to revive the harbour by building two sluice gates (where Rogers had planned to build a dam) to hold back the river water. The remains of the 16th century pentagonal fort were to be restored, which is testimony to its sound design, since the French still thought it valuable in Vauban's'day.

The dockyards themselves were to be outside the main fort, on the north bank of the river. For their defence, there was a bastioned trace running from the main fort to the sea. There was a coastal battery in the west to defend the entrance to the harbour.

Work was started on the project, but it became apparent that Ambleteuse was not such an ideal harbour as it seemed to be. It was too easily blocked by sand and the currents of the sea and the dominant winds in the area made it difficult for ships to use. The project was abandoned in 1688 and of the fortifications only the coastal battery (known as the Fort d'Ambleteuse or Fort Mahon) was built.

Interestingly, it stands more or less where the English built their battery in the 16th century. The fort consists of a low horseshoe-shaped battery for cannon, a two storey casemated'tower and a land front. The latter is added in the 19th century.

The fort has a similar form to Fort Chapus and Camaret, but with one major difference: the gun floor. The tower holds one big vaulted room for 8 cannon, 6 facing the sea and 2 facing the land. The vault is supported by one big central pillar and is pierced by a large ventilation shaft for the powder fumes.

The land front was added in the early 19th century when Napoleon Bonaparte garrisoned Ambleteuse in his war against England. It consists of a loopholed'wall with a redan. The wall is indented for the entrance, so it is flanked by the loopholes.

The fort was decommissioned in 1887, but it was used again in the Second World War. The Nazis built several blockhouses and they also added the concrete floor in the casemate, which used to be one big open room.

After 1945 the fort was abandoned and left in ruins. In 1965 the fort was classified as a monument and from 1967 onward a society called "Les amis du fort d’Ambleteuse” (Friends of the Ambleteuse fort) started to restore it.

Visiting Ambleteuse

Today it is hard to imagine this rather sleepy town was of such strategic significance. In front of the promenade the fort seems somewhat big and out of place. In spring and summer it can be visited on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The foundation “Les amis du fort d’Ambleteuse” looks after the fort and publishes small books and magazines. All revenues from their publications and entrance fees go to the maintenance and restoration of the fort.

Inside the fort there is a small museum packed with information about the town, its region and the long history of the fort. The fort itself is in very good condition, thanks to the restoration works of the foundation, and is well worth a visit.

Some traces of the English fort can be seen in the town. Another fortress from the Henry VIII era remains at Cap Gris-Nez. I have not seen it but according to the information at the museum three of the four curtain walls can still be seen together with four bastions.

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf and Dominic Goode, all rights reserved.

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